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The History of Hanami

In Japanese History on April 4, 2017 at 8:01 am

花見
hanami (cherry blossom viewing, but literally “looking at flowers”)

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I was recently asked to write an article about the history of 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing, which I was happy to look into. Although I had a broad understanding of this uniquely Japanese tradition – and one of my favorite aspects about living in Japan – I’d never really researched the subject in depth. Needless to say, going all JapanThis! on a non-history website or publication isn’t always appropriate[i], but I was super excited when they agreed to publish the stripped down, 650-word version while allowing me to publish the extended 12” remix here for you guys.

So, without further ado, here’s the history of hanami.

china plum blossom

Chinese courtiers enjoying plum blossoms and crappy plum wine. Sorry, I can’t drink plum wine. It’s so nasty.

The Classical Origins of Hanami

If we take the word literally, hanami just means “looking at flowers.” It’s a Japanese word that falls into a broad category of “looking at things” words – two other famous examples might be 月見 tsukimi moon viewing and 富士見 fujimi Mt. Fuji viewing[ii].

In a world without TV or movies, bored humans have always found ways to entertain themselves. And, as is the case in most cultures, while the poor were toiling in the fields, the rich built lush private gardens. In the West, this happened in the Roman Empire. In the East, this happened in Ancient China. The Chinese were particularly enamored with the fragrant plum blossoms – an equally beautiful flower, but much heartier and less vibrant than 桜 sakura cherry blossoms.

gokusui en

Gokusui no En was a typical Heian Period poetry even linked to seasonal changes practiced by the Northern Fujiwara clan. This one is recreated once a year in Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture. It wasn’t a sakura-centric event but definitely influenced by China and was focused on seasonal events like hanami in the literal sense of “looking at flowers.”

When the imperial court was based in Nara in the 700’s, local aristocrats would read Chinese poems celebrating the transient beauty of plum blossoms. In their gardens, each flower’s location became a new venue for poetry writing events or places to engage in other artistic endeavors, such as calligraphy, flower arrangement, and painting. The most common flowers were wisteria[iii], plum blossoms, peach blossoms, and ultimately cherry blossoms which were treasured for their brief yet brilliant bloom. By the Heian Period, the term hanami had become synonymous with cherry blossom viewing specifically, and not just flower viewing in general.

800px-Sasaki_Toyokichi_-_Nihon_hana_zue_-_Walters_95221.jpg

Toyotomi Hideyoshi at one of his final hanami events in Kyōto before his death.

The Heian Period, as I’m sure you’re aware, essentially ended with the rise of the samurai class. Eventually, in the 1500’s, a warlord named 豊臣秀吉 Toyotomi Hideyoshi unified the country. He sought to legitimize the samurai – not just as warriors, but as protectors of aristocratic cultural practices. It’s here that we first find paintings of high ranking samurai, called 大名 daimyō, enjoying hanami – placing themselves on par with the imperial court. Hideyoshi encouraged the warriors to engage in other arts such as poetry, tea ceremony, and flower arrangement.

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Hanami in the Premodern Era

Hideyoshi failed to establish a lasting dynasty, but his ideas of promoting cultural practices of the court among the samurai was a success. When Japan’s most stable warrior government was formally established in Edo in 1603 by 徳川家康 Tokugawa Ieyasu, hanami was an inherent aspect of the elite culture in peace time. But the Tokugawa Shōgunate took things a step further. They began planting cherry blossoms in Ueno, where you could visit the magnificent mausoleums of the shōguns. This vast religious center was open to the public and would become Ueno Park in modern times. Daimyō from other parts of Japan brought the concept of public cherry blossom viewing spaces from Edo back to their respective domains.

shogun harem hanami chiyoda castle edo castle tokugawa

Ladies of the shōgun’s harem enjoying hanami on the expansive grounds of Edo Castle, once the largest castle in the world – a city within a city.

This brought hanami to the commoners. Kabuki and entertainment in the pleasure quarters were looked down upon by the shōgunate as morally questionable, but enjoying cherry blossoms was good clean fun and people of any rank could enjoy it if they had access to the trees. Of course, some of the best groves where behind the high walls of the palaces of the feudal lords in Edo and of shōgun’s castle in particular, but temples, shrines, and common spaces were open to all.

gotenyama hanami.jpg

One of my favorite ukiyo-e of all time, two groups of women doing hanami on Goten’yama. You can see Shinagawa below, the calm waters of Edo Bay below, and the ever present boats on premodern Japan’s busiest harbor. Looking out at the bay must have seemed like looking at the end of the world – and by that I mean the Pacific Ocean and modern Chiba Prefecture.

Furthermore, large scale planting of sakura in Edo in places like 御殿山 Goten’yama[iv], 飛鳥山 Asukayama[v], 道灌山 Dōkan’yama[vi], and other famous spots provided public spaces where anyone could enjoy the beautiful pink blossoms. Even Yoshiwara, the moated and sequestered red light district had streets lined with cherry blossoms. The tradition of 夜桜 yo-zakura, or nighttime sakura viewing, is generally thought to have origins in Yoshiwara and similar Edo Period red light districts because businesses stayed open late and used lanterns to maximum effect to make their shops seems more attractive at night, especially during the short cherry blossom season. While usually men frequented the pleasure quarters, wives and daughters often came to enjoy the illuminated trees and try to catch a glimpse of the courtesans in their flashy kimono. Anyone who has enjoyed yo-zakura knows there’s a dramatic difference between daytime hanami and nighttime hanami.

yoshiwara night hanami

Nighttime hanami in Yoshiwara. You can see the lanterns illuminating the trees. Also, notice the guy covering his head. Men of prominent positions in the community, while allowed to – and often expected to – have concubines, were discouraged by the shōgunate from going to red light districts like the Yoshiwara. They often covered their heads to avoid recognition. But, of course, they went. Because oiran!!! Who wouldn’t?!!💛

With the great Tokugawa Peace came re-branding. The samurai, traditionally warriors, now found themselves with no wars to fight – essentially functioning as bureaucrats. In order to legitimize their function in society, they were expected to be living examples of Japanese morality and behavior for all of society beneath them to admire and emulate. A proverb arose: 花は桜木、人は武士 hana wa sakuragi, hito wa bushi as for flowers, there are sakura – as for men, there are samurai. On the surface, this simply means the greatest of flowers are cherry blossoms and the greatest of men are samurai. But there’s another meaning; it’s a reference to the warrior tradition and the expectation of samurai to commit 切腹 seppuku hara kiri/ritual disembowelment for failing to live honorably. A samurai’s life may seem noble and poetic – a thing of beauty, if you will – but at any moment he may be cut down in battle or asked to give his life. Therefore, the life of a samurai was likened to the sakura. He is beautiful, but fleeting. Likewise, a strong storm or sudden frost might ruin all the cherry blossoms, ending the season early. The link between samurai and sakura persists to this day, and commonly comes up in historical movies and TV dramas.

seppuku

Seppuku Fun™

After the Meiji Coup in 1868, the new government embarked on a decade’s long modernization initiative. One of the biggest changes to Japanese society was the abolition of the caste system, including the samurai. There were some in the new government who lobbied – unsuccessfully, luckily – for the removal of sakura from places associated with the Tokugawa and the samurai, such as Ueno and Edo Castle because of the strong connection between the samurai and cherry blossoms. In the end, cooler heads prevailed and as the concept of public parks was introduced, hanami was rebranded as a pan-Japanese tradition that dated back to the heyday of the imperial family during the Heian Period. In fact, to many westerners who learned about Japan through postcards and movements like Japonisme and Orientalism, Japan was often reduced to imagery of Mt. Fuji, geisha, and cherry blossoms.

Further Reading:

ueno daibutsu.jpg

The Great Buddha of Edo. It was destroyed in the 1923 Great Kantō Earfquake and had been a minor spot in Ueno Park until quite recently. Now it’s famous with Asian tourists, even though most Tōkyōites don’t even know it exists.

Modern Hanami

In the 1880’s and early 1900’s, newspapers began announcing famous spots for hanami and recommending the best times to go. The blooming of sakura coincided with the newly established school year, and companies latched on to this cycle to welcome in new hires and reinforce the commitment of existing workers’ dedication to the organization. In this way, the sakura became a symbol of birth and rebirth, rather than the fleeting existence of the samurai.

shinjuku gyoen.gif

As horticulture and the art of garden construction incorporated new scientific discoveries, public parks and botanical gardens soon learned that they could extend the hanami season by planting two to three varieties in the same park. Why only have two weeks of hanami when you can have three or four?

yoshino sakura.jpg

Having a picnic and drinking sake while looking at cherry blossoms is a tradition that goes back to the Heian Period.  Until recently, you could usually only carry a bottle or two with you, so the parties were shorter. Since the 70’s and 80’s, there have been convenience stores on every corner in major cities. This has made it possible for hanami parties to run from 6 AM to 11 PM because you can just refuel at 7-11 whenever you run out of booze. Furthermore, hanami goers in parks these days can even order delivery pizza, sushi, or whatever they need. In the age of instant gratification, an old proverb came to be associated with hanami: 花より団子 hana yori dango – literally, sweets over flowers. The implication is that some people don’t come to enjoy the sakura as much as for the wild partying.

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Japanese companies often send the youngest or lowest ranking people on their teams or in their departments to go stake out prime hanami spots in busy locations at the crack of dawn. Inevitably, they begin partying, often from 6 AM until the main group arrives. I came across this poor fellow at noon and it seems like… well… I guess hazing is a thing in his company.

Crazy Parties and Secret Spots

If you go to some of the larger parks in Tōkyō, like Ueno, Yoyogi, Inokashira, Meguro, etc., you’ll find a very party-like atmosphere. Ueno Park, in my experience, tends to be the craziest. People used to bring portable karaoke machine – a practice that has long since been banned – but still it’s the rowdiest and booziest. However, Yoyogi Park definitely gives it a run its money. In fact, I’ve seen DJ’s spinning house and techno in that park. Inokashira Park in Kichijōji is still all about the party, but has a much more hippied-out vibe. The Meguro River isn’t as crazy as those three, but it’s pretty noisy because it’s so congested and the sound of generator powering the food stalls forces people to raise their speaking volume just to communicate with one another.

anaba sakura.jpg

All of this is great fun. I love it for sure, but sometimes you just don’t want to deal with all the craziness. As such, a lot of people seek out the best kept secrets, or 穴場 anaba in Japanese (usually shared by word of mouth). This could be anything from a very local shrine to an obscure park. These places tend to have a great hanami experience without the crowds and often don’t have all the drunks shouting and laughing with each other or passing out on wherever on the ground. And while not a secret spot, some places like Shinjuku Gyoen have specific rules banning alcohol – though, that doesn’t actually stop people from bringing it in, but the people who do tend to be low key about it.

So, Edo’s big 5 hanami spots were Goten’yama, Ueno, the banks of the Sumida River, Asukayama, and Koganei. What are your favorite spots in modern Tōkyō? And do you know any cool secret spots?

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Explore Edo-Tōkyō

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[i] There’s a little mantra you’ve probably heard: know your audience.
[ii] Both of these words made their way into architectural terminology of the Edo Period. For example, Edo Castle and Kawagoe Castle both had 富士見櫓 Fujimi Yagura Fujimi Turrets and many places in Tōkyō still bear the place name Fujimi since you could see Mt. Fuji from there, for example 中野富士見町 Nakano-Fujimichō. Tsukimi appears everything from teahouses to castles, most notably Matsumoto Castle’s 富士見櫓 Fujimi Yagura Fujimi Turret.
[iii] Wisteria, or 藤 fuji, were closely linked to the 藤原氏 Fujiwara-shi Fujiwara clan, a powerful family of the imperial court that was the ancestor of a number of powerful samurai clans which preserved the kanji for wisteria when establishing new branch families with new names
[iv] This was one of the preeminent hanami spots in the Edo Period, but sadly shōgunate destroyed the area to build defensive islands to protect Edo from the threat of a sea based invasion by western powers in the 1850’s.
[v] This is still a popular hanami spot located a short distance from Ōji Station.
[vi] There are famous ukiyo-e of this spot, but today it’s a shadow of its former glory.

The Meguro River

In Japanese History, Tokyo Rivers on September 1, 2014 at 4:56 am

目黒川
Meguro-gawa (literally, “black eye river,” more at “the Meguro River”)[i]

 

The Meguro River.

The Meguro River.

Finally.

Finally… my 7 part series on the rivers of Edo-Tōkyō is finished. The task seemed a little daunting, but worthy of doing.

“A little daunting,” I thought!

It was soul draining to say the very least. I had to take long breaks during the research phases even in the writing phases just to keep my own sanity. Any of you also follow me on Twitter know I’ve been busy with other stuff as well.

But this entire experiment has been eye opening for me. What started this series was a curiosity about the rivers that breathed life into this sprawling metropolis. Anyone who’s ever seen any 浮世絵 ukiyo-e scenes of day to day life in the shōgun’s capital surely have noticed the abundance of river scenes. This is no mere coincidence. Readers of the blog should also know that I’m a big fan of Jin’nai Hidenobu’s phrase “the Venice of Asia” when referring to Edo.

In Japan’s post WWII years, as the economy grew, the rivers got more and more polluted and some of them smelled awful (the Meguro River was no exception). Major building projects began to take place in Tōkyō Bay and rivers that were used as drainage and open air sewers were paved over or diverted and drained completely. I don’t know if this is 100% accurate or not, but the first time I visited Shibuya in 2001 or 2002[ii], I noticed an odd smell and asked my friend about it. He said, “There are dirty rivers under Tōkyō. Sometimes their smell just comes up through the cracks.”

Sometimes their smell comes up through the cracks, indeed.

Cruising on the Meguro RIver.

Cruising on the Meguro River.

 

 

Are You Going to Talk About the Meguro River??  

Yes, of course. Sorry about the digression.

 

The start of the Meguro River is the confluence of the the Kitazawa River and Karasuyama River.

The start of the Meguro River is the confluence of the the Kitazawa River and Karasuyama River.

 

What is the Meguro River?

In reality, the Meguro River is a nothing more than a glorified storm drain today. Its official length is 7.82 km. It begins at the confluence of the 北沢川 Kitazawa-gawa Kitazawa River and the 烏山川 Karasuyama-gawa Karasuyama River. It passes through 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward[iii], 目黒区 Meguro-ku Meguro Ward[iv], and 新川区 Shinagawa-ku Shinagawa Ward[v] and empties into Tōkyō Bay at 天王洲 Ten’ōzu in Shinagawa.

 

The End of the Meguro River in Shinagawa. Hello, Tokyo Bay!

The End of the Meguro River in Shinagawa. Hello, Tokyo Bay! This structure is called the 目黒川水門 Meguro-gawa Suimon “Meguro River Floodgate.”

 

The Meguro River Midori Michi

The confluence of the Kitazawa and Karasuyama Rivers is located in Karasuyama (in Setagaya). The rivers are actually underground, so you won’t see much there, though there is a monument. The emergent Meguro River is also underground.  A little water is diverted to ground level and manifests as a small, decorative creek. This area is called the 目黒川緑道 Meguro-gawa Midori Michi Meguro River Green Path. The man-made stream and its accompanying vegetation attract a variety of wildlife whose populations and health are closely monitored to maintain a healthy “green space.” A short distance away, at 大橋 Ōhashi, literally “the big bridge,” where 国道 246号 Kokudō 246-gō National Highway #246 passes, the underground river and the creek are re-united at the mouth of the visible portion of the river.

 

Water breathes life into the city. It's so important to have green spaces like the Midori Michi.

Water breathes life into the city. It’s so important to have green spaces like the Midori Michi.

 

Much of the modern course of the Meguro River is supposedly the old Shinagawa River. However, there hasn’t been a river called “Shinagawa” for hundreds of years. In casual conversations, I’ve heard a lot of confused explanations for the existence of the place name “Shinagawa” despite the lack of a river bearing the same name[vi]. The most repeated stories usually reference a 川 kawa river used to bring 品 shina/hin products in and out of the bay. Whether that derivation is true or false is a discussion for another article.

 

Are the Meguro River and Shinagawa River the Same Thing?

Short answer, yes.

View of Ebara Shrine from Shinagawa Bridge.

View of Ebara Shrine from Shinagawa Bridge.

 

But I Think the Long Answer is More Interesting.

It’s not much of a long answer and more of a series of tangents. Wanna go there?

If you’re a long time reader, you probably already know the story of Meguro and the story of Mejiro, so you know that folk etymology is most likely involved. But I’m gonna take a short detour to talk about Shinagawa a little bit.

I’ll preface this digression with 2 facts: modern day Shinagawa is spread across both 港区 Minato-ku Minato Ward and 品川区 Shinagawa-ku Shinagawa Ward, modern Meguro lies in 世田谷区 Setagaya-ku Setagaya Ward. However in the Pre-Modern Era, both villages lay in 武蔵国江原郡 Musashi no Kuni Ebara-gun Ebara District, Musashi Province.

Family crest of the Minamoto, the shogunal family.

Family crest of the Minamoto, the shogunal family.

 

In 1184, Minamoto no Yoritomo sent an edict exempting his distant clansmen in the Ebara District from imposing superfluous taxes – other than annual land/rice taxes – on the peasants of the area[vii]. These relatives were the 品川氏 Shinagawa-shi Shinagawa clan. Apparently, this is the oldest document referencing Shinagawa. But as we’ve seen time and time again here at JapanThis!, when a new branch family was established, they would take a new family name based on the fief that they controlled. In the case of Shinagawa, this shows the place name Shinagawa clearly predates this remote noble family.

 

The Ōi Clan – River Makers

Anyone familiar with the Shinagawa area will know 大井町 Ōimachi. If your place name radar just went off, you’re probably right. I haven’t covered Ōimachi yet, but believe me, it will happen.

The Shinagawa clan was branch of the main 大井氏 Ōi-shi Ōi clan[viii]. In order to irrigate their fief, the Ōi clan dabbled in a little river manipulation. Somewhere near the place called 立会川 Tachiaigawa (the modern kanji mean something like “the place where rivers stand together/come together”), the Ōi separated a section of the river 断ち合い川 tachiai kawa rivers that cut off from each other[ix].  This happened in the Kamakura Period. One of the branches passed by 瀧泉寺 Ryūsen-ji Ryūsen Temple in Shimo-Meguro (see my article on Meguro).

 

Once the Shinagawa and Meguro River, today it's the Tachiaigawa River. This bridge is Namidabashi in Shinagawa. It was the final "bye bye" place for families and the soon to be executed.

Once the Shinagawa and Meguro River, today it’s the Tachiaigawa River. This bridge is Namidabashi in Shinagawa. It was the final “bye bye” place for families and the soon to be executed.

 

Interestingly, the Ōi were a branch of the 源氏 Genji Minamoto clan (and as such, so were the Shinagawa). The Shinagawa and Ōi retainers made up an auxiliary force of samurai called 随兵 zuihyō or zuibyō[x]. In the Kamakura and to a certain degree in the Muromachi Periods, these were low ranking, sometimes mounted, warriors who were called in for important jobs such as making the shōgun’s procession longer when he didn’t have enough people; making high ranking shōgunate officials’ processions look longer, you know, when they didn’t have enough people; and protecting 神輿 mikoshi portable Shintō shrines when they were transported from a main shrine to a newly established branch shrine… in a procession, of course.

 

The Meguro Clan – They Didn’t Do Shit

In neighboring 江原郡目黒郷 Ebara-gun Meguro-gō Meguro Hamlet, Ebara District, another noble family supplying 随兵 zuihyō to the Kamakura shōgunate had also taken the name of the local area and were known as the 目黒氏 Meguro-shi Meguro clan. Supposedly their residence was the site of the present day Meguro Junior High School. No extant remains are visible today.

 

meguro clan residence

 

But back to the river. As we’ve seen throughout this series, before the so-called Modern Era, there was no standardized, official naming system as we have today. River names were generalizations and local areas had local names for their little slice of the river. Hence the river was called the Shinagawa River in Shinagawa and the Meguro River in Meguro.

It’s interesting to note that Edo Period maps and illustrations don’t use the word 目黒川 Meguro-gawa Meguro River to describe the river that passes by Ryūsen-ji. The river in Shimo-Meguro is called the こりとり川 Koritori-gawa. The word こりとり koritori comes from syncretic Buddhism and Shintō. In kanji, it’s written 垢離取り kori tori. This refers to the act of ritually purifying oneself in water before visiting a temple or shrine[xi]. The kanji for kori literally mean 垢を離す aka wo hanasu getting rid of filth[xii].

Before there was the Ice Bucket Challenge there was "kori."

Before there was the Ice Bucket Challenge there was “kori.”

 

Which Brings me to my Final Point

Why where people jumping in the river to get rid of spiritual impurities? If you noticed, earlier I dropped a reference to Ryūsen-ji. This is a temple in 下目黒 Shimo-Meguro Lower Meguro. There are many claims that the name of this area comes from this temple. In the Edo Period this temple was one of a cluster of temples called 江戸五色不動 Edo Goshiki Fudō the 5-Colored Immovable Buddhas of Edo. However, most linguistic evidence indicates that the name is quite ancient and has nothing to do with the temple. That said, if you’re interested, I think I wrote an article about this somewhere…

 

Pilgrimage map.

Pilgrimage map.

 

Coincidentally, people jumped into the river during the firebombing during WWII. The river was said to be littered with corpses for weeks. There’s an ancient superstition that says cherry blossom trees require human blood to grow and that underneath every cherry blossom is a grave. The events of WWII and this superstition are sometimes invoked by old people who have lived in Meguro since the war days. They say the cherry blossoms are so beautiful because they’re fed by all of those who died in the river during the firebombing. It’s a kind of ghoulish thought, but I can guarantee you, plants and trees can grow just fine without human blood.

 

Two cherry blossoms means two dead bodies. Awwwwww yeah.

Two cherry blossoms means two dead bodies. Awwwwww yeah.

 

But as I said earlier, the Meguro River is basically a drainage ditch. But there are many 桜 sakura cherry blossoms planted along its route in Naka-Meguro. As a result the area has become popular for 花見 hanami cherry blossom viewing. Food stands are set up and cafes and restaurants that line the river do a lot of business catering to the crowds admiring the pink and white leaves. Normally, living next to a drainage ditch doesn’t give you bragging rights but Naka-Meguro has become one of the most desirable areas in Tōkyō. But this wasn’t all the case. The area was one of the least desirable areas until the late 1980’s. The river was seriously polluted until a major clean up and attempt to revitalize the area was begun. The cherry blossoms were planted at that time.

 

Today the Meguro River is one of the most popular spots for hanami.

Today the Meguro River is one of the most popular spots for hanami.

 

Alright. So that’s it. No more river articles. Woo-hoo!

 

 

 

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[i] See my article What does Meguro mean?
[ii] I don’t remember and don’t have my old passport to confirm.
[iii] Here’s my article on Setagaya.
[iv] Here’s my article on Meguro.
[v] Here’s my article on Shinagawa.
[vi] I wrote article about Shinagawa and Takanawa, but it’s so old that I don’t want to include a link. Embarrassing. I promise to revisited the topic again some time.
[vii] The surviving document is the 品河三郎清実に品川郷の公事免除 Shinagawa Saburō to Kiyzane/Kiyomi ni Shinagawa-gō Kōji Menjo Exemption from Official Service for Shinagawa Saburō and Shinagawa Kiyomi of Shinagawa Hamlet. (The name 清実 has many possible readings, so I’m not sure which is correct. I provided 2 possibilities and have chosen Kiyomi from here on out).
[viii] Anyone familiar with the Shinagawa area will know 大井町 Ōimachi. If your place name radar just went off, you’re probably right. I haven’t covered Ōimachi yet, but believe me, it’s in the works.
[ix] I’m not sure if this was one branch irrigation ditch or a many….
[x] A kind of rear guard.
[xi] The act of visiting a temple or shrine is called 詣で mōde or 参り mairi.
[xii] Buddhist monks would read this as ku wo hanasu getting rid of ku. Ku is filth that causes suffering. Here’s what wiki says about it.

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